At the end of every divorce, marital property must be divided. New Jersey is what is referred to as an “equitable distribution state,” which means that the judge will divide the marital property “equitably” between the parties. Equitable does not mean equal. The way the judge determines what is equitable is made according to a laundry list of factors. In general, any property that was acquired before the marriage is separate property, and is not subject to be divided in the divorce process. However, there is an exception to this general rule. The doctrine of unjust enrichment could mean that a spouse is able to ask the court to divide assets that are separate property and would usually not be subject to being divided. This is what happened in a New Jersey Supreme Court case in 2016 called Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme.
In that case, the spouses lived together for approximately eight years before getting married. During the pre-marriage cohabitation period, the husband worked for a company called IBG. Through his employment, the husband had a Statement of Understanding from his employer which stated he would receive special compensation if the company was sold. The parties proceeded to make financial and life decisions based on the agreement. These decisions included the husband working long hours and travelling extensively for work, the purchase of a new home, and the wife sacrificing her own career to stay home with the parties’ child. The parties then got divorced. During settlement negotiations, the husband told the wife that the payout from the agreement may never happen, and even if it did, he did not expect a large cash payout. He also told the wife that in the event that he did receive a settlement, the parties could revisit the issue. Three months after the divorce was final, the husband received $2.25 million dollars after the company was sold. A representative from the company testified that the husband received the bonus in recognition of his working there for thirteen years, and the husband did not know about the sale of the company before it happened. The wife subsequently requested that she receive half of the bonus. The trial court and appellate court ruled that she only should receive a portion of the bonus that was attributable to the husband’s work during the parties’ short marriage. The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court determined that the husband would be unjustly enriched if he were permitted to keep the entire amount. It determined that the parties’ made big decisions based on the prospect of the husband receiving a large compensation. Both parties relied on the expectation of the deferred compensation that the husband would receive. The wife took significant steps to support the husband in his career as a result, and so could not seek her own employment or additional education. The Court ruled that the wife was entitled to half of the entire amount of the bonus, not just the amount from during the parties’ marriage.Unjust enrichment is a highly fact-specific inquiry, and you need an experienced attorney to help you through these issues. Call us today at (732) 529-6937 for an appointment to talk about your divorce and equitable distribution.